Friday, 19 October 2012

Table Manners

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The Chinese family across the street are cooking. The whole street knows. Into this cold grey evening they infuse the smell of garlic and lemongrass. The steam from their bubbling pots condenses on the window, creating a soft blur of family togetherness.
Their bin flew open that blustery day, spewing out oriental delights into our bleak world. Green tea packets, golden peanut biscuit wrappings, crumpled red boxes of chrysanthemum tea. Ribbons with Chinese writing fluttered in the trees for days.
They look like little dolls, with shiny black hair, poker straight and porcelain skin. The little girl plays on the street and when her mother calls out to her in Chinese, it sounds like music. This is my favourite time of day because they are all home for tea. I leave the window open and take in deep breaths. I don’t really know what the Chinese eat at home, but it’s certainly better than my plastic wrapped cottage pie.
I like to close my eyes and imagine their table. Noodles, surely, wound expertly on chopsticks, with some dark looking sauce and pork. That’s what I watch on the telly. Chinese cookery shows. Indian cookery shows. Even British ones. So why is my korma never so inspiring, nor my toad in hole? Is it because they take two minutes to cook in the microwave?
I’m not allowed near a gas stove. I’m not mentally capable, they say. I cannot handle a knife. I may cut myself. I’m not allowed a job. I cannot function like a normal person. I’m very good at sitting by the window, watching the world go by. And one day, I see a new face at the window opposite.
She’s tiny, this old lady, deep wrinkles lining her face. Her eyes, what little I can see of them, are full of happiness. She catches my eye and gives me a grin. She has two yellow teeth but she’s not embarrassed of showing them off. She must be one of the grandmothers, I think. She waves and turns away.

She’s outside my door, motioning me frantically to her house. I have to bend to look at her. She’s pulling at my hand, talking gibberish. I stumble out and follow her. I’m still in my vest and I smell. I don’t have to wash if I don’t want to. I enter their house unsure of what’s happening. The old lady takes me out to the garden and points to a tree. A kitten is sat up there.
She’s stuck, is she? I ask her. The old lady nods her head vigorously. There’s a ladder by the shed and in no time I have the kitten down and in the lady’s arms. She bows to me. Now I am embarrassed.  She leads me in, talking all the time. I nod, as though I know exactly what she’s saying.
She sits me down at the table and offers me tea, I think. It is yellow with flowers floating in it, and it is vile. I press my lips together in a smile and wonder how to get rid of the stuff without offending her. I’m still in my vest and still smelling, so I really need to go home, I say. She nods, showing me her two teeth again and pours some more of it.
I try to excuse myself. I shouldn’t get upset, I keep reminding myself. I’m not very good at being upset. I should go, really. But she’s gaping at me, nodding and smiling. I start to hyperventilate. I need air, I think. The kitchen’s too hot. There are pots bubbling on the stove, with enough steam to make me sweat.
She retreats, understanding my refusal. I think she’s afraid now that I’m standing straight and tall. When she looks up at me, I see a tear fall down one of the creases of her cheek. I don’t like making people cry. I rock from foot to foot, moaning. I bite my hand to stop from wailing. She watches in shock and steps back. Slowly, she moves to the gas stove and starts to tend to the cooking pots. She stirs, tastes, and adds something. She starts chopping mushrooms and carrots. 
I watch her. Her gentle motion calms me down. I like it better when she’s ignoring me. She adds the vegetables in the pot. I like the aroma wafting in the room. Slowly, I walk towards her. So what do the Chinese cook for their tea?
I learn as I watch.  She cooks with a love that breaks my heart. No one’s cooked with love for me. When she finishes, she motions me back to the table. She takes the offending tea away and sets down a place for me. I watch as she ladles food in little bowls. We sit down and eat. My first cooked meal in a very long time. She slurps and licks and chews noisily. I follow enthusiastically. He kitten purrs contentedly in her lap, licking her fingers dipped in the stew.
After the meal, she bows again. It is time to go. I shamble along to my door. It’s time for her to pick up the little girl from school. It is time for me to doze in my chair and wait until the evening soap. I settle myself in, and smile. I realise that today I haven’t heard my microwave go ‘ping’.

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